A Great Fit: Cedars-Sinai Program Gets Cancer Survivors Up, Running Again

Tina Radburn loved to run and had made it such a part of her life and regular exercise routine that the athletic 39-year-old Australian had competed in six marathons and several half marathons.

But when she was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer three years ago, everything changed.  Instead of spending hours training, she found herself spending hours undergoing chemotherapy.  After months of treatment, her cancer was in check.  

Like other cancer survivors, however, Radburn found that her illness and its treatments took a continuing toll on her, physically and emotionally. And now she was unsure how to find the joy and stress-relief she once had experienced through rigorous exercise.  

Through a referral from her oncologist at Cedars-Sinai, Tina was directed to the Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. It had just launched a new program where specially certified physical therapists tailor exercise plans and work with individual cancer survivors for one hour, three times a week.  The three-month program proved perfect for Radburn, who since has returned to her native country.  

“After I finished treatment, my ‘after cancer’ body was totally foreign to me.  I had no energy and tired very easily,” she said.  “It was very important for me to start exercising again, but I didn’t want to overdo it or hurt myself. I didn’t know where to start.”

Under the guidance of her Cedars-Sinai experts, Radburn first underwent a cardiac stress test on a treadmill, then evaluated for her new baseline balance, strength and endurance levels. Maryam Fathi, her Cedars-Sinai physical therapist, created a custom exercise program aimed at keeping Radburn’s heart rate at a specific intensity as she worked to improve her fitness level.  “I trusted Maryam to set goals that were realistic and attainable,” Radburn said. “It was like she was my personal trainer.”   

Radburn’s far from unusual as a cancer survivor in benefiting from exercise programs. With advances in technology and developments in drug therapies, 28 million or so patients globally survive a cancer diagnosis and live with the disease, experts say. Taking heed of these heartening numbers, Cedars-Sinai has taken an active role to create programs and support services that address quality of life issues affecting this growing population.

Through its Survivorship and Rehabilitation program, Cedars-Sinai offers counseling, education seminars, pain management and other services that support patients during their diagnosis, treatment and beyond, all of which help people cope with the daily challenges cancer brings. The program aims to meet survivors’ emotional, spiritual and physical needs; the exercise class is the newest addition to the program’s offerings.

Research shows that physical activity after cancer treatment helps reduce fatigue, as well as increase strength and endurance, says Arash Asher, M.D., director of Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation at Cedar-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

“In our cancer exercise program, we work with survivors with all levels of fitness – each participant’s exercise program is personalized, individualized, unique, and closely monitored,” Asher says. “But this program does more than strengthen after-cancer bodies. It empowers the participants in every aspect of their lives.”

The Cedars-Sinai exercise and rehabilitation program is one of only a few in the country. Maryam and others from Cedars-Sinai’s physical therapy program undertook a week-long cancer exercise specialist course at a noted rehabilitation center and received training to develop an institutional program, design exercise prescriptions and assess individuals’ fitness levels. They also were immersed in the latest research findings on exercise and cancer rehabilitation.

To date, 18 patients at Cedars-Sinai have participated in the cancer exercise rehab program.  Asher hopes to expand this program – and to share its results to help other medical centers set up similar ones.  

The program was a boon, Radburn said, helping her strengthen her body as well as her resolve to return to running.  “At first, I was worried that running long distances might not be good for me. But the program – and my therapist -- alleviated my fears and gave me the confidence to start running again.”

In the fall of 2010, she raced in the inaugural Rock’n’Roll half marathon in Los Angeles – and raised money to boost the Cedars-Sinai cancer exercise pilot program.

“It wasn’t easy – at the end, I was repeating, ‘This is for Dr. Asher, this is for Dr. Asher’ as a kind of mantra to get me through the last couple of miles,” Radburn said with a laugh. “But it was worth the effort.  This race was a turning point for me.  At the finish line, I thought of everything I had gone through to get there, but at the same time, I felt an overwhelming confidence that I would be able to continue moving forward in my life.”